Julia and the Caledonian women

Julia Domna

Sculptured portrait of a Roman lady, believed to be Julia Domna.

Anyone who seeks to discover Scotland’s early history through textual sources written more than a thousand years ago soon realises that ‘fake news’ isn’t a modern phenomenon. It has always served a useful purpose for its creators, as much in the first millennium AD as in our own era of digital communication and social media. Recognising false information for what it is, rather than taking it at face value, is likewise as much of a challenge when we’re reading an ancient chronicle as when we encounter an attention-grabbing headline on the internet. In some instances, even after having dismissed something written in the remote past as fake information – such as a legend masquerading as real history – we find it so fascinating that we want it to be true. This is what happened to me many years ago when I came across what seemed, at first glance, to be a curious fact – namely that the oldest known words attributed to a woman from Scotland were spoken to a woman from Syria.

The conversation in question supposedly took place sometime in the early third century AD, around the years 209/210. Our source is the Historia Romana (‘Roman History’), a multi-volume work penned by the contemporary historian Cassius Dio. At that time, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was on active service in northern Britain, leading a military campaign beyond the Antonine Wall – the great turf barrier stretching between the firths of Forth and Clyde. His foes were unconquered native peoples in what are now Stirlingshire and Perthshire, specifically two large groupings or ‘tribal confederations’ – the Maeatae who lived adjacent to the Wall and the Caledonians to the north of them. These two had been causing a great deal of trouble, raiding southward into lands under Roman rule and returning home laden with loot. A recent wave of attacks had been serious enough to persuade the governor of Roman Britain to appeal directly to Septimius Severus for aid. The emperor had duly taken personal charge of a major effort to bring the marauders to heel. Arriving in Britain in 208, accompanied by his wife and their two adult sons, he led his huge army northward. His troops suffered considerable losses from guerilla warfare but eventually both the Caledonians and Maeatae negotiated peace treaties with him. Dio identifies one of the key figures on the Caledonian side as Argentocoxos, presumably a senior chieftain, whose Celtic name means something like ‘Silver Leg’. However, the ensuing truce turned out to be short-lived and a new round of hostilities soon began.

Severan campaign in Scotland

Severus in Scotland, AD 208 to 210, showing three of the many forts involved in his campaign.

According to Cassius Dio, it was during the brief period of peace that a conversation took place between the wives of Argentocoxos and Septimius Severus. The name of the Caledonian lady is unrecorded – perhaps Dio himself had no record of it. He certainly had no doubt about the identity of the other woman. She was Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Severus and one of the most famous of all Roman empresses. Julia’s image was so well-known around the Mediterranean lands in her own lifetime that it can still be seen today on various coins, paintings and sculptures. Born c. 160 in the city of Emesa (now Homs) in Syria, she sprang from a high-status Arab family who seem to have had royal ancestry. Her father was a senior priest at Emesa’s Temple of the Sun, the main cult-centre of the Middle Eastern god Elagabalus. Charismatic and well-educated, Julia was a suitable bride for Severus when, as a childless widower in his early forties, he decided that he should be married again.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from AD 193 to 211.

Dio had a particular fascination with Julia and has left us a fair amount of information about her. As a career politician who served as senator and consul he was well-placed to obtain interesting snippets of information about members of the imperial family. He had rather less interest in barbarians like Argentocoxos, even when he could be bothered to name them. Like most Romans he no doubt regarded the inhabitants of ancient Scotland as a mob of wild, uncouth savages prowling beyond the Empire’s borders. As an author he nevertheless found them useful as caricatures of the stereotypical barbarian – simple, uncorrupted folk whose primitive ways of living could be amusingly contrasted with the immorality and hypocrisy of sophisticated Roman society. Drawing on such stereotypes, he informed his readers that the Caledonians and Maeatae ‘possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring’. It hardly needs saying that such a strange custom probably never existed among the contemporary inhabitants of Perthshire and Stirlingshire, nor are they likely to have viewed adultery and marital fidelity much differently from the citizens of Rome. The idea that they practised a kind of ‘free love’ may have originated as a joke or rumour among Roman soldiers stationed near the northern frontier – or perhaps Dio simply made it up. It appears in his narrative shortly before the meeting between Julia Domna and the wife of Argentocoxos and provides the essential moral backdrop to their conversation.

Dio tells us that the empress teased her companion by saying that Caledonian women indulge in a sexual free-for-all, sharing their beds with different men while making no attempt to conceal their adultery. To a respectable aristocratic lady like Julia, such brazen promiscuity would indeed have seemed worthy of comment. We then see the wife of Argentocoxos swiftly responding with what Dio calls ‘a witty remark’ of her own:

“We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.”

As with all ancient and medieval authors, we should be wary of taking Dio at face value. Although Julia Domna was very much a real person – and indeed one of his contemporaries – this did not deter him from portraying her in a way that suited his literary purposes. Modern scholars who analyse his writings believe that the Julia he presented to his readers was, to some extent, moulded to fit his narrative. There is no doubt that she plays a special role in the Historia Romana, particularly in those sections where Dio seeks to pass judgement on the moral and political issues of his time. In this instance, his target was not the allegedly shameless promiscuity of Caledonian women but the clandestine adultery of fine Roman ladies. The consensus view among present-day historians is that he simply invented the speech quoted above. Like a modern peddler of fake news, he took a piece of made-up information about a group of foreigners and ‘spun’ it to make a specific point. His readers – the wealthy, educated elite of the Roman world – would have got the message very clearly. Some of them probably raised a wry smile; others may have felt stung by the barbed jibe attributed to an anonymous northern barbarian.

I think it would be good if we could accept the story as true. Some parts of it possibly _are_ true, even if the conversation reported by Dio never happened – or at least not in the way he describes. It is not unrealistic, for example, to imagine Julia Domna visiting the imperial frontierlands in what is now Scotland. She was certainly no stranger to dangerous war-zones. One of her honorific titles was Mater Castrorum, ‘Mother of the Army Camps’, bestowed in recognition of her willingness to accompany her husband on military campaigns. Whether she met the wives of any barbarian leaders on such occasions is debatable, although not implausible. I’m inclined to think we can consider the possibility that she not only visited Scotland 1,800 years ago but had a face-to-face encounter with the wife of a local chieftain. Musing even further, we can perhaps imagine these two high-status women – one a Syrian, the other a Caledonian – exchanging a few words, not directly but through an interpreter. Whatever they said to one another, it is more likely to have consisted of polite greetings rather than the mockery and ‘witty remarks’ placed into their mouths by Cassius Dio.

* * * * *

Epilogue

Julia Domna outlived not only her husband but also their sons, Caracalla and Geta. The brothers became joint emperors following the death of their father in 211 but their relationship was mutually hostile. Within months, Geta was murdered by Caracalla’s soldiers, dying in his mother’s arms. Julia detested Caracalla but relished the power and influence she acquired during his reign and chose to maintain a public image of maternal loyalty. The complicated relationship between mother and son even prompted rumours of incest, but Cassius Dio makes no mention of this and modern historians dismiss it as malicious gossip emanating from the imperial court. Caracalla turned out to be an unpopular emperor and his assassination in 217 came as no surprise, but his death deprived his mother of political status. Julia, by then in her fifties, suddenly found herself at risk of being exiled from Rome and ending her days in obscurity. This bleak prospect filled her with dread, especially as she had begun to nurture ambitions of ruling the Empire herself. She died soon afterwards, allegedly starving herself to death but – according to Dio – finally succumbing to the breast cancer that had afflicted her for many years.

Julia Domna

The emperor Caracalla with his mother Julia Domna.

* * * * *

Notes & references

Julia’s second name or ‘cognomen’ Domna derives from an ancient Arabic word meaning Black. It distinguished her from her elder sister Julia Maesa, a woman of ruthless ambition whose own story is no less remarkable.

– – – – –

The conversation between Julia Domna and the Caledonian lady is reported in Book 77, section 16, of Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana.

For this blogpost I used the Loeb Classical Library edition, available online at Lacus Curtius.

Substantial portions of the original text of the Historia Romana have not survived, the lost material being known from an abridged version written by the Byzantine scholar John Xiphilinus in the eleventh century.

– – – – –

Some journal articles I have found useful:

Riccardo Bertolazzi, ‘The depictions of Livia and Julia Domna by Cassius Dio: some observations’ Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 55 (2015), 413-32

Andrew Scott, ‘Cassius Dio’s Julia Domna: character development and narrative function’ Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 147 (2017), 413-33

Christopher T. Mallan, ‘Cassius Dio on Julia Domna’ Mnemosyne vol. 66 (2013), 734-60

Caillan Davenport, ‘Sexual habits of Caracalla: rumour, gossip and historiography’ Histos vol. 11 (2017), 75-100

Julia Domna

Julia Domna and Septimius Severus with their sons Geta and Caracalla (Geta’s face has been deliberately erased).

* * * * * * *

Advertisements

Æthelflæd arrives

aethelflaed_TCcopy3

Last week I received from my publisher (Birlinn Books of Edinburgh) the first of six ‘author copies’ of my newly published biography of Æthelflæd. I am very pleased with how it looks and took this quick photo. The other five will hopefully be coming down the M74 in the next few days. They won’t be around for long and will be heading off in different directions soon after I receive them. But this one, being the first to arrive, I will definitely be keeping for myself.

A more detailed announcement of the book can be found over at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

* * * * * * *

Cobwebs

I’ve been away from blogging for more than a year and a half, my longest period of absence since the launch of Senchus ten years ago. Distractions of various kinds have caused me to drift off the radar, but now I’m gradually making my way back. All three of my blogs have lain dormant since the autumn of 2016. Returning after such a long break means oiling their wheels, kick-starting their rusty engines and clearing the cobwebs off my WordPress dashboard.

Although absent from the ‘Blogosphere’ I’ve still kept in touch with history and archaeology. In April 2017, the Stove Network invited me to their headquarters in Dumfries to give a talk about Dark Age Galloway. The event was part of a cultural heritage project called Our Norwegian Story which looked at links between Scandinavia and South-West Scotland, so the Vikings featured prominently in my presentation. On a similar note, I was honoured to give the 2018 Oddveig Røsegg Memorial Lecture to the Scottish Norwegian Society a couple of months ago. My topic was ‘Strathclyde and the Vikings’, with an emphasis on the Norse aspect. A nice souvenir of the evening was a Society badge incorporating the Scottish and Norwegian flags (see below).

SNSbadge300high

Also in 2017 I wrote a book, my seventh on early medieval history and the first without a Scottish focus. It’s a biography of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Æthelflæd ruled the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia in the early tenth century and led her armies against the Vikings. Her death in June 918 is being commemorated 1100 years later at a number of places in what was once her domain. My book is scheduled to appear around the time of the anniversary and is being published by Birlinn of Edinburgh. The front cover shows a sculptured portrait of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, the site of one of her fortresses.

Aethelflaedcover_500high

I’ll be posting about Æthelflæd at my other blog Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, which seems the most relevant venue, but occasional updates on the book will also appear here at Senchus.

Those of you who keep an eye on news about Dark Age Scotland will know that there have been some interesting developments in the last year or so. I hope to report on these as I slowly get back to blogging.

* * * * * * *

Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).


Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

* * * * * * *

Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)


The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

* * * * * * *

Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

* * * * * * *

The graves of the queens

Govan cross-slab

Early medieval cross-slab at Govan, re-used in 1723. From Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).


Yesterday on Heart Of The Kingdom I published a post which asked, and attempted to answer, a question about royal tombs: How many queens of Strathclyde are buried at Govan?

This isn’t a question that can be answered by browsing a book or searching online. No information – neither historical nor archaeological – can currently give a definitive answer. The best we can hope for is to make a rough guess, and this is what I’ve done in my blogpost.

Take a look and see if you agree with my reasoning. Comments are always welcome, either here or at the blogpost itself.

Heart Of The Kingdom: Female royal burials at Govan

* * * * * * *

Whitby

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey


As this blogpost is about a place in England I’m putting it in my ‘non-Scottish’ category, but that’s not the whole story, because Whitby has an important connection with early medieval Scotland.

Today, Whitby is a busy town and seaside resort on the coast of North Yorkshire. Its most striking landmark is the ruined abbey on a high headland overlooking the harbour. The abbey stands near the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery which was the venue for a hugely significant event in AD 664: an ecclesiastical synod where matters of grave concern were discussed. The synod was hosted by Abbess Hild, a princess of the English kingdom of Northumbria, who also chaired the debate. Among the attendees was the Northumbrian king Oswiu (husband of Hild’s kinswoman Eanflaed) at whose request the gathering was summoned.

At stake in the debate was the future direction of Christianity in Oswiu’s kingdom. Would the Northumbrian churches continue to follow the ‘Celtic’ religious customs of Iona, the Hebridean island monastery founded by Saint Columba? Or would they instead adopt the so-called ‘Roman’ customs practised throughout much of Western Europe? The Celtic case was put by Colmán, bishop of Lindisfarne, while the chief spokesman for the Roman side was Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. After hearing the arguments and counter-arguments, King Oswiu decreed that the Northumbrian churches should adhere to Roman customs alone. At a stroke, Iona’s authority among the Northern English clergy was ended. Even those who felt strong loyalty to the old Celtic ways, such as Hild herself, were obliged to obey the royal command.

Nothing now remains of the seventh-century monastery at Whitby. Although archaeologists have found traces of timber buildings on the seaward edge of the headland, as well as a large cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves beneath a car park near the Abbey, the precise layout of the monastic site is unknown. Modern visitors are instead left to imagine how the headland might have looked in Hild’s time. When they reach the top of the 199 steps leading up from the town, they encounter an impressive rendition of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby.


This monument, known as Caedmon’s Cross, was erected in 1898 to commemorate Caedmon, a herdsman at the Whitby monastery, whose talent for poetry caught the attention of Hild. Both he and the abbess are carved on the front, together with Jesus Christ and the Israelite king David.
Saint Hild of Whitby

Caedmon’s Cross: St Hild, abbess of Whitby.


Caedmon

Caedmon’s Cross: Caedmon the poet


Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross: commemorative text


The cross stands in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, an interesting old building which is well worth a visit. The church has a number of stained glass windows depicting key figures connected with the Synod of Whitby (Hild, Wilfrid and Colmán) as well as Caedmon and two seventh-century Northumbrian kings (Oswiu’s brother Oswald and Hild’s kinsman Edwin).
Hild and Wilfrid

St Mary’s Church: Hild and Wilfrid


Caedmon and Colman

St Mary’s Church: Caedmon and Colmán


Finally, a Scottish connection from a rather later period: a stone memorial, high on a wall inside St Mary’s Church, honouring the English general Peregrine Lascelles (1685-1772) who fought in the battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1745. This famous Jacobite victory, in which an English army was flung into disarray by a wild Highland charge, evidently niggled the old general to the end of his days. His memorial refers to a fruitless exertion of his Spirit & ability at the disgracefull rout of Preston pans.

St Mary's Church, Whitby: memorial to General Lascelles

General Lascelles (left) and his memorial at St Mary’s Church, Whitby (right).

* * * *

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

I’ve written in more detail about the Synod of Whitby in my book on Saint Columba.

Hild has been brought vividly to life by award-winning author Nicola Griffith in a historical novel scheduled for publication later this year.

* * * * * * *